Volume XXVII Number 2
Carrier by Brian Jones, 2004
Courtesy Brian Jones
Photo by Debra Fisher
At Work in a Sacred and Personal Space
On an improbably blue-skied winter day, atop one of the most magnificent hills to be found along the southern Indiana side of the Ohio River, Brian Jones surveys a landscape of surpassing splendor. All around him are tall, dense forests, swaying and sighing in a mild breeze. In the distance, a secluded lake sparkles. Behind him stand the silent buildings of a century-old monastery.
Jones remarks that 15 years ago or so, much of this terrain was being considered for development. “Imagine apartment complexes here,” he muses. “And a Wal-Mart.”
A group of Franciscan friars oversees this idyllic property, known as Mount St. Francis. As a professor of printmaking and drawing at Indiana University Southeast and an activist in the Kentuckiana art scene, Jones was an ideal person to be enlisted when the friars sought to preserve and bring new purpose to the land. Working with colleagues, volunteers, and the Franciscans, Jones has been one of the leaders in transforming several buildings on the Mount St. Francis grounds into the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts.
A reddish brick house, its stained-glass windows adorned with portraits of saints, was once a dormitory for clerics; it’s now a residence for visiting writers, musicians, and visual artists.
A glazed-brick garage houses a pottery studio, classroom, and gallery. The monks’ former calving barn is now a light-filled space frequented by painters, weavers, composers—anyone with a creative or scholarly project to complete and a need for the solitude and support offered by the Mary Anderson Center. (Mary Anderson was a locally connected 19th-century stage actress, quite celebrated in her day, who donated the 400 acres that became Mount St. Francis.)
Jones served two terms as chair of the arts center’s board of directors, and he recalls times “when we had about 40 dollars in our bank account.” Finances are steadier these days, and during this visit, executive director Debra Carmody tells Jones that the calving barn recently received a $60,000 grant from a single donor. “We’re now in a position where we can do more outreach,” Carmody observes. Later, she notes that, unlike some of the more famous artists’ residences, the Mary Anderson Center has no waiting list. A wide variety of scholarships and grants help guests—who have included Pulitzer and Guggenheim award-winners—to stay as long as their art requires.
His own experiences with retreating from the world to create art have helped Jones in shaping the center’s mission. “When I go into the studio,” he says, “I need 12 hours of uninterrupted time to do something. With teaching and faculty governance and everything else, it’s almost impossible to find that time.”
Productive mid-1980s sabbaticals spent at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., and at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., convinced Jones that a comparable environment could be achieved here, in the rolling Indiana limestone hills known as “knobs.” Although he downplays his own contributions to the venture’s success, Jones acknowledges that “the reputation of the Mary Anderson Center is now huge.”
The essence of Jones’s work is that he has continually confronted difficulty—even despair—and emerged with something of great beauty and value. Back in his office in IU Southeast’s Knobview Hall, the clearest example hangs above his desk: a harrowing self-portrait rendered in a combination of monotype (a technique using multiple layers of ink to yield one-of-a-kind prints) and relief (produced by applying ink to raised portions of a block). The colors are dark; the lines are raw and cruel; the dominant image is of Jones’s face, bruised and twisted in anguish and nearly consumed by a frothing tidal wave. “That piece is called Wake,” he says. “It was for an exhibition hosted by Hospice of Southern Indiana that dealt with grief.”
He then tells what happened—how he and his wife, well-known Louisville designer and illustrator Cynthia Torp, lost their 19-year-old daughter Kate four years ago in a car wreck. “She and her boyfriend were going out to Colorado to meet up with some friends and go camping. They called from Kansas City at about midnight, and we said, ‘Why don’t you pull over and stay somewhere?’ and she said, ‘No, I’m going to sleep now, and Matt’s going to drive.’ He fell asleep. They both died.”
In a 2001 essay for The Journal of the Mid-America Print Council, Jones, who was then president of the council, eulogized Kate and reflected on his overwhelming sorrow. “Kate had just finished a distinguished freshman year at Millikin University, where she was studying technical theatre and art,” Jones wrote. “Her talent and intellect were enormous, her potentials exciting. . . . Lately, when I’ve gone into my studio, I look at my press, visualizing the ritual and the motions of pulling an impression. My studio has always been both a sacred and a personal space, a safe place. . . . This safe and secure feeling has always been essential to my creative rituals. More significantly, though, now it is essential to dealing with this loss.”
Looking around his office at other samples of his work, Jones identifies several that express a wistful desire to transcend suffering. Casualty Fossil, a multimedia work that features thick applications of oil paint as well as dozens of tiny plastic toy soldiers in the foreground and a prone figure in the background, is part of a series of works Jones created around the theme of fossils. He explains, “I thought about what it would be like if the things that I wish didn’t exist—like war, AIDS—if someday someone might see them in a fossil and say, ‘I wonder what that was?’”
It’s only natural that fossils would play an important role in Jones’s imagery, considering that he’s a native of an area where the geologic record is so stunningly on display. Jones grew up in nearby Jeffersonville, Ind., on the banks of Silver Creek, and spent much of his youth sifting through vast fields of Devonian rock fragments and admiring the fossilized plants and creatures embedded within them. He often carved patterns inspired by these organisms into the rocks and then cast them into the creek, thinking that their finders would see them as treasures, which in fact they were.
Jones began college at IUS, planning on a practical and familiar career as a journalist. (His father had published a newspaper in Jeffersonville.)
“When I found out that you could actually major in art,” he recalls, “it changed my life. I thought my mother would be disappointed that I didn’t want to go into journalism, but she said, ‘I don’t care if you dig ditches, as long as you love it.’”
The only potential remaining obstacle to a career in art was the fact that Jones is colorblind. But this trait, though it may be unusual among artists, has only served to add depth and texture to his representations.
“My prints tend to be painterly,” he says, mentioning Slice, a monotype with a haunting spectrum of perhaps 20 different colors. “I’ve spent a lot of time developing the monotype process because it involves layering color. I have to work with one color at a time, and I base my choices on the value—the position relative to black and white. I also work with the temperatures of color. I can see whether something is a warm color or a cool color, but I don’t know if I’m looking at green or red or purple or brown.
“I know yellow,” he adds. “Yellow’s the color that I’m always sure about.”
As a transfer student in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at IU Bloomington, Jones was captivated by the particular challenges of printmaking as he studied with renowned faculty members Rudy Pozzatti and Marvin Lowe. Next he earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Cincinnati. He has taught at IUS for the past 25 years. Over this period, Jones’s work has appeared in more than 30 solo exhibitions, more than 125 group exhibitions, and has been widely collected by museums, universities, individuals, and corporations.
Several years ago, Carol Wax’s book The Mezzotint: History and Technique prominently featured Jones’s 1983 Broadway Signatures. (Mezzotints are created by rocking a toothed metal tool across the surface of a metal plate, or sandblasting it, to create the inked areas and burnishing the plate to create the blank areas.) The subject matter consists of brightly colored forms, loosely wriggling and overlapping.
“I was living in New York City for a short while when I made that print,” Jones says. “I was inspired by the graffiti in the subway tunnels, how it’s created so quickly, the grace of its calligraphic lines.” As so often happens in Jones’s work, Broadway Signatures discovers beauty within the grit and violence of real life. “Since then my work has become more representational,” Jones says, “with more easily recognizable subject matter.”
Jones leaves his office and goes downstairs to Knobview’s printmaking studio. It’s a Friday around noon, and a few students are quietly completing projects. He opens a drawer and takes out a set of proofs for a portfolio project that he and his current printmaking class have been working on. For this group of prints, the artists have chosen the unmistakably macabre theme of “poison.” Techniques are varied, as is the subject matter, which includes tarantulas, toxic waste, poison ivy, foxglove, and—Jones’s entry—a mosquito in close-up. (The piece is titled Carrier.) “I had West Nile virus a few years ago,” he says, and his ability to create beauty from misery is once again confirmed.
As a former IUS student himself and now a veteran faculty member, Jones has observed an evolution among fine arts students: attention spans are shorter, he says, and career goals are more pragmatic. “The trend is that a lot fine arts majors are gravitating toward graphic design because that’s a marketable area,” Jones says. But other options exist. “We try to help our students in as many ways as we can to continue their work, to go to graduate school. Some of our graduates are making a living as professional artists, but it’s a lot tougher than it used to be.”
Jones’s stated wish for IUS’s 160 fine arts majors and the eight students in the campus’s newly created B.F.A. program is that they appreciate the importance of their work.
“By the time they’re seniors, they start to recognize that through their personal expression, they may inform the world about something that the world didn’t know about before,” Jones says. “When they begin to realize that, they see the world differently. They think about the world differently. And that is just so rewarding.”
Karen Grooms is senior editor in the Indiana University Office of Publications in Bloomington.